Wykoff woman shares love of Iditarod experience
Wednesday, May 01, 2013 3:57 AM
If you happen to be traveling down a road in the countryside near Wykoff and see 18 dogs pulling a four-wheeler, there is no need for alarm. Those dogs are Alaskan huskies and they belong to Minnesota native Cindy Gallea, who has been mushing in the Iditarod Trail Race in Alaska for years.
Cindy Gallea is pictured with her son, Jim Gallea, at the 2013 Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race in Alaska. Cindy completed the race in 12 days and met her son at the finish in Nome. Behind them is the dog yard where the teams rest after the race. PHOTO COURTESY OF CINDY GALLEA
Gallea, 61, grew up in Gaylord, Minn., on a farm with her parents and two sisters. Despite the family living on a farm, Gallea was the only sister to develop a deep love for the outdoors. According to her, Gallea's older sister doesn't like camping and her younger sister kind of likes it. For Gallea, she prefers camping to living in a house.
"I think it's more genetic," she shared. "It felt good being outside and doing chores with my dad."
She credits both her nature and the farm's nurture with how she feels when in the elements. However, Gallea didn't expect her love of the outdoors to someday mean she would trek over 1,000 miles in one of the most extreme races on earth.
"I spent more time around cats when I was young," shared Gallea, who ironically now owns 52 Alaskan huskies. She said the farm had one dog named Tippy.
There was a time when Gallea thought she didn't like dogs at all; she had taken care of her cousin's dog once and had been bitten. When she lived in Grand Marais, Minn., Gallea said her husband had wanted a dog. "I said I didn't want to take care of it," she laughed. By 1987, both of them were trying to figure out how many dogs they would be able to own.
It was through the influence of some friends in Grand Marais who mushed that started to inspire Gallea and her husband with the sport. They purchased several dogs, but Gallea recalled they weren't good racing dogs. Instead, they used them for fun runs and winter camping.
In 1988, her husband at that time decided to race for the first time. Having graduated with a bachelors of science degree from St. Olaf College in 1973, Gallea felt like it was time for her to continue her education.
She moved out to Seattle in 1988 to get a masters degree in nursing from the University of Washington. After her two-year break, she moved, but not back to Grand Marais. She and her husband agreed to move to Montana because of the ideal mushing conditions. Gallea stayed in Montana until 2010, when she decided she wanted to move back to Minnesota to be closer to her parents. She had two sons, Jim and Brian, who graduated from high school and college in Montana.
Gallea's priorities have always been clear to her. Raising her boys was the most important thing, she said. Her work as a nurse practitioner was and still is important to her. She had many demands on her time, but she was still able to develop a deep love for dogs and mushing in Montana.
"For me there was no turning back," she said about beginning to mush.
She and her husband started participating in more races, even traveling back to Minnesota for the John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon in Duluth.
She was already an experienced musher when her husband ran the Iditarod in 1996. She traveled up to the finish line in Nome to see him; it was her first time in Alaska.
"I thought about if I would ever like to run the Iditarod," she recalled.
Gallea remembered asking several people at the race how she would know if she should do it. She received both answers of "You know when you are ready" and "Well, you are never ready."
In the end, it didn't matter what anyone else said, because Gallea had fallen in love with Alaska. "I wanted to see what everyone was talking about," she explained. "I was scared, but I knew I wanted to do it."
Two years later, she would find herself heading away from the start line in Anchorage thinking, "What have I done?" Training in Montana was excellent and she had completed several races in order to qualify for the Iditarod. Gallea said she was still nervous.
"I start every race with a knot in my stomach," she said. "What if I lose the team or get hurt?"
Along with that initial fear, she said, is also a constant desire to pursue the race. It takes a lot to be able to mush dogs. "I think you have to be determined. You have to love dogs and be willing to put in the time and resources it takes. If you don't, it's not worth it," she explained.
Gallea also said mushing takes an attitude toward problem solving in that most problems are solvable. "There are so many logistical issues to deal with and you figure out how to deal with it all," she said.
She went on to explain that she has always been a determined person, but that working with the dogs and running the race has helped her develop skills and mental toughness. "The Iditarod has many life lessons you learn," she shared. "The question is: do you want to put yourself through it?"
The Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race was started in 1973 and has become more popular over the years. The race is approximately 1,049 miles from Anchorage to Nome and is run in early March. Winning times today clock in at roughly nine days.
Gallea's first race in 1998 took her just over 14 days to complete. Since she has now completed in 10 Iditarod races, her best time has been 11 days and eight hours. Her best place was 33 in 2003. Gallea pointed out that she is more competitive than what her places indicate.
"The top 20 people who do Iditarod train and that is what they do," she said.
Gallea admitted she has considered moving to Alaska, but she doesn't want to give up the other parts of her life. "Sometimes I get frustrated that I haven't done what it takes to be more competitive, but it's still a great, rewarding experience and I get to go home when it's over," she added.
Once the race begins at Anchorage, the mushers and dog teams make their way along a well-marked trail to the next checkpoints, where they can rest before heading on to the next one. Some checkpoints are actually in small villages, and some are just a collection of tents.
If one of her dogs gets injured, Gallea has been able to drop the dog off at a checkpoint where a veterinarian attends to injured dogs. It will then be flown back to Anchorage and taken care of until Gallea heads back home.
The checkpoints also allow Gallea to replenish her supplies from supply packs the mushers send on ahead of themselves. It is not out of the ordinary to bring 1,800 pounds worth of supplies to Alaska.
Gallea has experienced her share of adventure in between the checkpoints. She has had to ford water, deal with white-out conditions, and become very sleep deprived, among other things.
"You can't prepare for the sleep deprivation," she stated.
The race is an emotional roller-coaster as well. Gallea said she could feel really happy and excited when her dogs are running and are healthy, but have that change in an instant to frustration and worry when bad weather or rough terrain slows them down.
Gallea had an experience in this year's race when she and her dogs had to go through water not once, but four times. "The dogs don't like it and it is a potentially dangerous situation," she said.
The first water obstacle was only a foot deep, but the second was knee deep. According to Gallea, the dogs tried to get away from the water and ended up tangling the lines. Employing her problem solving skills, she took two dogs across and tied them to trees. Going back and forth seven times through frigid water, Gallea finally got the sled and team straightened out and was able to continue.
"My feet were so numb," she recalled.
But that wasn't the end. The next two water passages were not as severe as the previous one and were able to be crossed by the team. In order to prevent situations like this in the future, Gallea makes sure she chooses leaders for her team, which are dogs that have an ability to keep moving during the good and bad times. In order to be able to tell which dogs are suitable for leadership, it takes having a very good relationship with them.
Gallea knows each of her dogs by name, and sometimes, even by bark. When she realized she should move back to Minnesota, she thought she would sell most of her dogs. When it came down to actually doing it, she couldn't.
"You spend a lot of time watching them," which she said helps her pick out who would be able to run a long race such as Iditarod. The longer winter this year has helped Gallea train her dogs, but she sometimes has to travel elsewhere in order to find good snow.
Pulling a four-wheeler, she said, is around the same weight her dogs experience on a fast trail in Alaska. The gravel roads near her rural Wykoff home provide good training ground for her teams.
In order to protect their feet, each dog wears booties. The booties also prevent snow from balling up and irritating the webbing in between their toes. A good eater also makes a good dog, since they can't be picky when on the trail. The Iditarod is not a glamorous race.
Gallea appreciates many things about the Iditarod. "What I value is nature and the simple things. That's when I'm most content," she shared. There are moments during the race, Gallea added, when she is able to enjoy the moment. Early in the race, she usually is racing alongside other mushers, but soon finds herself mushing alone.
"The best is when the dogs are just going, it's a beautiful night or day, and you feel like everything is right."
Gallea has also been able to share her experience with her son, Jim, who has competed in the Iditarod three times himself. They both ran the Iditarod in 2003. He hasn't done it since, but Gallea thinks he will do it again someday.
After not doing it herself since 2010, Gallea was glad to participate this year and is looking forward to heading back for, "at least one more year."
She craves periodic adventure, which helps her deal with the remainder of the year. She also loves to socialize and connect with other Iditarod mushers.
Gallea is one of only 750 people who have ever run the race. "That's what is meaningful," she expressed. "They understand why you do it and why it is really important to you. It's nice to have that camaraderie." Roughly 65 teams run the race to Nome every year.
To Gallea, there is nothing quite like reaching the hill where she can look down and see the town of Nome, where every Iditarod race ends. "It's a powerful experience. That's when I realize, 'we did it'."
Although she is quick to point out that one unfortunate musher had to quit three miles before the finish line because his dogs suddenly refused to run anymore, Gallea herself once got stuck in a white-out storm eight miles from Nome. In a total white-out, a musher would not be able to see their dogs. "It can be very disorienting," she said. In this case, she had her dogs stop and waited for an hour and a half before she could tell where the next trail marker was.
Once across the finish line, the dogs have their harnesses taken off and they are led to a dog yard to eat and rest. Gallea then rests herself and enjoys a large banquet for the mushers. She also makes sure to get the mail she carries with her from Anchorage postmarked.
When she comes back home with her dogs, she has a time of grieving. "You are with your dogs so intensely. I miss that when I get home."
Otherwise, she heads back to work and tries to catch up on sleep. "I feel so lucky that I've done Iditarod," she concluded. "Not everyone has that call for adventure. I have that call. I have no idea where it comes from."
Beside her upbringing on a Minnesota farm and mushing in Montana she said, "I think in a previous life I lived in the Arctic."